With the Carolina Panthers ready to begin their NFC title defense, the ramifications of the Josh Norman contract saga of this past spring have mostly washed away.
What remains is the burnt-in image of the flare Dave Gettleman sent up:
“I don’t subscribe to the ‘one player away’ theory,” the Panthers general manager said on April 21, the day after he released his star cornerback from the franchise tag, “because in my mind, football is the truest of all team games.”
In time, he’ll have to decide just how much he meant by that line. A few pass rushers on other teams have poked and prodded the theory this summer. By the next summer, Gettleman’s 2013 second-round pick will have broken the dam open.
In June, the Eagles handed defensive tackle Fletcher Cox what was then the richest free-agent deal for a non-quarterback in NFL history at six years and $103 million, with $63 million guaranteed. Two weeks later, the Broncos dwarfed that contract with the six years, $114.5 million and $70 million guaranteed they gave Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. A few days later, the Jets locked up end Muhammad Wilkerson at five years and $85 million, which was still $10 million more in contract dollars than what Norman found in Washington.
In a matter of months, Gettleman’s philosophy that Carolina will keep defensive players at its own set costs has died, at least in how it applies to rising star defensive tackle Kawann Short.
The new market for star pass rushers is just too rich. As much as the Panthers might want to blame it on the Jacksonville Jaguars for throwing $42 million guaranteed at a potential one-year-wonder in defensive tackle Malik Jackson the moment free agency opened in March, they know where this really began.
Try last year’s Super Bowl. That’s when the Panthers’ 2015 joy ride ended, thanks to Broncos pass rush specialists Miller and DeMarcus Ware wreaking havoc around the stunts and two-gap plays of Jackson.
The Panthers lost more than their edge that day. Any legitimate leverage they thought they had over Short, such as a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton and a proven defensive system, is also gone. And if Gettleman’s stance that the “one player away” theory can only apply to the quarterback didn’t disappear, it’ll at least turn costly: The Broncos used a noodle-armed, 39-year-old Peyton Manning to beat their league MVP that day, all because they had a counter to the passing game that was literally unstoppable.
By all means, Gettleman’s stand against Norman’s aspirations to be the league’s highest-paid cornerback was noble and potentially wise. Norman’s rise to elite playmaking status in his fifth season made him the perfect piece for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy secondary, but a piece is still what he was.
Carolina’s scheme under head coach Ron Rivera has been about forces bigger than outside cornerback play, as zone coverage principles might suggest. The strength lies inside, where Short provides immediate pressure and funnels run plays to star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who offer pass rush and zone coverage at more unpredictable levels. Carolina proved that by masking the deficiencies around Norman in the secondary to finish No. 2 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
By releasing Norman from the $16 million franchise tag he was intending to sign, Gettleman was able to spend that exact dollar amount to extend All-Pro center Ryan Kalil by two years. The message of assurance it sent to his franchise quarterback, who at times clashed with Norman, was perhaps even stronger.
For now, Newton is the exception to Carolina’s rule, with a contract that totals $103 million. To maintain the approach that has built the Panthers into an elite team, Gettleman will have to get rid of to his leading sacker in one year or possibly two, depending on what they do with the franchise tag next summer.
Because Short was a second-round pick, Carolina does not have a fifth-year option to pick up on his four-year, $4.6 million rookie contract. Having his value explode is simply inevitable if the 6-foot-3, 315-pounder duplicates the pass-rush, durability and run-stuffing strengths he rode to 11 sacks last season, which was almost double that of any other Panthers defender.
Gettleman could stand firm. He did just spend a first-round pick on Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler to back up Short and Star Lotulelei. The run-stuffing Lotulelei will be much less expensive to retain after his fifth-year option expires in 2018. However, the 323-pound Butler more closely resembles him than he does one of the league’s best interior pass rushers.
Thanks to stars such as Short, Kuechly and Davis and the direct impact they have on the majority of Carolina’s plays, Gettleman might be able to move past Norman and still have a defense worthy of challenging for the Super Bowl. Take one of those players out of the equation — or two, if 33-year-old Davis finally shows decline — and the pieces the Panthers have left might suddenly be looking around for the foundation Gettlemen swore wouldn’t decay.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at email@example.com and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.